Not too long ago, superstar singer Linda Ronstadt told the world that she has Parkinson’s disease. Because of this, she said, “I can’t sing at all…I can’t sing a note.”
Along with a world full of music lovers, I am very sorry to hear of Ronstadt’s health struggles. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to lose one’s voice, and I recognize that it takes an extra dose of courage as a celebrity to share this kind of diagnosis, since she will inevitably become another “face” of this not-so-pretty disease. I doubt that anyone wants to be remembered for one of the worst things that happened to them.
Ronstadt has given us the opportunity, though, to have a new conversation about Parkinson’s Disease and, specifically, how it affects the voice.
What is Parkinson’s Disease?
Parkinson’s Disease is a neurological disorder that affects your motor system. Or, in other words, it’s a brain disease that affects how you move. You may have muscle tremors, slowed movements, rigid muscles, and difficulty with balance and walking. Parkinson’s is chronic, which means people live with it over the long term, and it’s progressive, which means it gets worse over time.
Fortunately, we have many medicines and non-pharmacological methods available now to control symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. For more information, I’d recommend checking out this summary from The Mayo Clinic. Additionally, The Michael J. Fox Foundation has a handy infographic about Parkinson’s and a Q&A on non-pharmacological methods that may help people living with this disease.
How does Parkinson’s Disease affect the voice?
Because Parkinson’s Disease affects the motor system, it affects the voice. After all, we use a lot of muscles to speak and sing, from the diaphragm to the larynx. Common symptoms related to speech include decreased volume, hoarseness, a breathy quality, monopitch, and imprecise articulation. Any of the symptoms that make speech difficult can make singing even harder.
Is singing impossible, though? In her interview with AARP Magazine, Linda Ronstadt said, “I now understand that no one can sing with Parkinson’s disease. No matter how hard you try.”
This isn’t strictly true.
Of course, I don’t know Linda Ronstadt or what symptoms she is dealing with. I also realize that singing professionally – on a stage in front of audiences expecting a performance of a high caliber – is very different from singing along with the radio.
There is good news, though. The truth is that not only can some people with Parkinson’s Disease still sing, but for some people, singing is exactly what they need to help them maintain better speech and vocal functioning.
The Tremble Clefs: A Choir For People Living With Parkinson’s Disease
Enter one amazing, innovative idea: The Tremble Clefs. The choirs that are part of this nationwide program are all made up of individuals with Parkinson’s Disease and their spouses or caregivers. Not only do the Tremble Clef choirs offer a fun recreational music-making experience with people who understand what it’s like to have Parkinson’s, but they also can help to address speech and communication problems related to Parkinson’s Disease, through the breathing, stretching, singing, rhythm, and movement exercises that are built into rehearsals. You can see all the Tremble Clef choirs currently active here.
Music Therapy: Targeting Symptoms, Enjoying the Music
Of course, music therapy is another option for people living with Parkinson’s Disease. Music therapists can help people maintain vocal and physical functioning and cope with the emotional weight of having this illness, all through the medium of music. When you contact a music therapist about starting a music therapy program, you will first have an assessment session to determine what you want to get out of music therapy – where your biggest concerns are – and to talk about how music processes can help. The music therapist then helps to determine a treatment plan, targeting the goal areas you have identified.
You might spend time in a variety of music experiences – singing or vocal exercises, instrument playing, movement to music, musical improvisation – all depending on what you want to get out of music therapy. Over time, your treatment plan may change as your needs change, and you may decide to end music therapy when it is no longer helping you in the way you desire.
I do hope that Linda Ronstadt will find a way to keep making the music she loves, even as her voice is affected by Parkinson’s Disease. My heart goes out to her at this difficult time for sure.